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Daniel “Hollywood Breeze” Clayton puts his face on everything he does, and that explains the billboard rising from his club, Deno’s. Look up from anywhere on this stretch of Bladensburg Road and you see Breeze plastered wide and tall: toothy grin, black ten-gallon hat atop his head, disco-era orange butterfly collar owning his neck, blue-and-white-and-red-rose-patterned shirt hugging his chest.
The facial iconography stands out amid Bladensburg’s landscape, a hive of gray warehouses, weedy lots, and salvage yards. Not only do the surrounding businesses not update their storefronts with big, smiling faces, they don’t update them at all. This is a place where bus drivers come at the end of a workday, sit in folding beach chairs, and sip booze out of plastic cupsall within view of the Breeze sign.
On the billboard, Breeze’s happy mug is ringed with a tag line: “World’s Greatest DJ & MC.” On Bladensburg? Breeze thinks so. If you don’t believe him, well, you’re not the one smiling above this sorry strip.
When a citizen called downtown to complain about the billboard, Breeze shook it off. He figured that those who are successful in life are always going to have to deal with a few jealous crabs.
Breeze, 60, invested $875 in putting his head up there, and he dropped another wad of cash to add lights to keep his visage glowing at night. He added the words “Breeze’s Deno’s” just so you know who owns what. There is pride in those words, a simple look-what-I-got showmanship. And there is pride in Deno’s business cards, promotional calendars, and cargo van, all of which bear the owner’s likeness.
“When Mary Jane put her face on her bread, nobody said anything about that,” Breeze argues. “And when the Colonel put his face on his chicken, nobody said anything about that, either.”
Breeze appears to understand branding, but the new sign drives home a deeper point: He’s still here, presiding over his squat fortress of white brick, black windows, and red trim. He has spent 28 years and thousands of late, loud nights giving go-go bands a turn on the club’s foot-high wooden stage, which is bordered by multicolored lights wrapped in aluminum foil.
Deno’s sits in the midst of a go-go-club graveyard. Neighboring lots host the remains of the Icebox, the Taj Maehall, and the Coliseum. Scattered across the city, clubs such as the Eastside and the Capitol City Pavilion and the Black Hole have long since hosted their last shows.
In the last month, Breeze has flirted with completing the extinction of go-go clubbing in the District. Just below the billboard, Bladensburg’s blight has bitand bit hard. At about 2 a.m. on Aug. 14, after go-go up-and-comer the UnCalled 4 Band finished its set, three men jumped out of a black Mercedes SUV and sprayed Deno’s side entrance. Eight people, several of them teenagers, were shotthe most victims of a single shooting in the city in a decade.
After nearly three decades as a local go-go icon, Breeze runs the risk of seeing his club join D.C.’s growing list of places-of-business-turned-grisly-crime-scenes. Another Ibex. Another Starbucks. Another Colonel Brooks’ Tavern.
No one died from the wounds inflicted that night, but the incident furthered the club’s reputation as a violent venue. It was not the first time gunshots had rung out in the club’s shadow. D.C.’s Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Board responded by suspending Deno’s liquor license and scheduling a Sept. 24 hearing on whether to terminate it, effectively shutting the club down. Things do not look good for Breeze.
Undaunted by the blood and bullets and bad press, Breeze still keeps Deno’s open, mainly by digging into his own pocket. Money has gotten so tight that he’s no longer able to keep his billboard lit. “I’m trying to save on my electric,” he explains, looking up at his larger-than-life likeness on a recent night.
Breeze is determined that the billboard, that face, is going to be around a little while longer. “Everywhere that I go, man, people know that I’m a fighter,” he says. “I got their respectI can’t roll over.”
“Deno’s!” Breeze exclaims into his office phone.xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
“You serving alcohol?” the caller asks on a late Thursday night, an hour before the first go-go band takes the stage.
Breeze has been fielding variations of the same call nearly every day since locking up his liquor cabinets: “Are you open? You still got a show tonight?” The question has become so familiar that Breeze has cut his answer down to a nub.
“No alcohol,” Breeze snaps, hanging up the phone before the caller can respond.
“That hurts me, man,” he says.
Breeze is short and all chest. His wardrobe comes straight off of the Victory Tour rack. One of his most distinctive outfits is a skintight leopard-print shirt, black pants, and gold chain. Such get-ups are a constant riffing point among his staffers, but no one claims he
doesn’t look good.
With his liquor license suspended, Breeze has had to return crates of Absolut and Alizé to the wholesaler. But even though his club’s been dry for almost three weeks, he still sees his situation as day-to-day.
The curbside promotional sign in Deno’s parking lot lists the night’s bands and includes a tease: “No-Alcohol?” It’s classic Breeze, a confounding bit of club promo suggesting that if you were kind enough to stop by, there just might be beer on tap.
Fielding booze-availability calls and doing what he can with his surplus liquor are the only parts of Breeze’s routine that have changed since the shooting. Except that now he has to prep for a night of juice and water sales, something of an empty exercise.
One Monday morning, Breeze parks his red Cadillac El Dorado (license plate: “Breze2”) in his reserved spot alongside Deno’s at 8:20. He has to let the cleanup man, Mike, inside. Mike already mopped the place on Saturday and Sunday night, even though the handful of patrons didn’t leave much grime. No matter, Breeze says.
“The difference between me and the Ibex is that I’m a fanatic about cleaning,” Breeze offers, drawing a contrast with the grimy Georgia Avenue NW go-go club that closed in 1997 not long after one of its patrons killed a D.C. police officer. “Because that’s the next thing they’ll go after me with.”
Mike shows at 9:45. Breeze gives him careful instructions on how to clean the bathrooms. “I don’t want that ammonia in the bathroom,” he says. “I want that Pine-Sol.”
The club owner is preparing for tonight’s taping of Breeze Country, his cable-access show. Every Monday night, Breeze dons a captain’s hat and MCs the program as senior citizens from the area hand-dance.
Leaning against the bar, Breeze makes a list of what he needs: “Three cranberry, two orange, two fruit punch, one grapefruit, six waters,” and so on. Along the back of the bar, Dole pineapple juice, Everfresh Tropical Fruit Punch, Mistic Mango Mania, Sprite, and Crystal Geyser have taken the place of Bacardi Gold and Rémy Red. Those are locked in a cabinet behind a poster board: “No Alcoholic Drinks.”
His list finished, Breeze steps outside and revs up his blue company van, a 1992 auto-auction purchase with 168,224 miles logged, and heads out to run his errands. Not a block away, he remembers that he forgot to count the Mistics. So he flips on his cell phone and calls Mike back at the club. “I think we have two,” Mike says.
“Don’t think!” Breeze bellows. “Go look! You ‘think’ two. Check it! ‘I think’!” Mike reports back a more accurate inventory of two-and-a-half crates of Mistics. Breeze decides he needs more.
“You don’t want to be open and people looking for something that you don’t have,” Breeze says.
In a beat, the driver behind Breeze recognizes the club owner’s van and gives a shout-out. Breeze hollers back: “I’m fightin’ ’em, dog!” It’s unclear whether the driver understands whom Breeze is fighting. Breeze greets every male as “dog,” “big dog” or “homes,” as in, “You ain’t got no regular chips, homes?” Every female he sees gets either “darlin’,” “pooh,” or “shorty.”
After filling his vehicle with juices and other essentials, Breeze heads back to the shop. Tito, his liquor salesman, stops in, even though he knows that there will be no sales made at this joint today. Instead of slinging bottles, Tito discusses with Breeze the pros and cons of visiting Brazil, where Breeze has vacationed. Before Tito leaves, Breeze asks him to stop by later with some napkins.
Breeze then checks on the chicken wings, which Mike has started deep-frying. One wingette cools on a paper towel. Breeze doesn’t like the looks of that wingette. It’s too light. They can’t be too dark or too light, he instructs his novice chef.
But Breeze hasn’t gotten many complaints lately about the color of his chicken wings. And that’s because almost no one is showing up for the chicken wings at an alcohol-free club.
On one Thursday night, for instance, local go-go group High Energy starts into its first tune to find Breeze strutting across a nearly empty floor, past the red and black vinyl chairs and card tables covered in burgundy tarps. Maybe 10 people are here.
Outside, there’s just the pack of bored bouncers, sitting in folding chairs or leaning against the front of the building. For the security crew, these idle hours are spent watching DVDs through the window of a parked car and hearing their boss obsess over the thing he likes almost as much as patrons: Krispy Kreme doughnuts.
“See how bad it is,” Breeze mutters.
Two Oak Hill Detention Center vets pop by to taunt Breeze and his bouncers. “You got no alcohol,” one gibes before walking off.
Back inside, there’s still only the handful of kids. The headliner, Backyard Band, plays to a lot of empty chairs. With nothing to bounce off, the band’s rhythms end up rattling the poor souls who paid the $15 ticket price. And with no audience to feed off, the sound thunders, dominating the room. Before the night’s done, Breeze ends up in a corner, alone, a black floppy hat slung over his eyes.
Since the shootings, all the shows fade out the same waywith the realization that crowds won’t show for Donald Duck orange juice.
Two nights later, the bouncers stand around outside, looking tired of counting the minutes instead of the customers lining up to get inside. The chief bouncer, “Big Mac,” notices ketchup splattered right in front of Deno’s doors. “What happened to the ketchup?” he asks Breeze, who’s standing nearby.
“First thing police do when they come up, they’ll say, ‘Who got shot?’” Breeze jokes.
In his office file cabinet, Breeze keeps a Mead composition notebook with the words “Incident Reports” scrawled on the cover. Inside are journal entries from a lot of last calls, close calls, and scary calls at Deno’s.
For Nov. 30, 2001, he wrote: “A group of Girls from one side of town were arguing with another group of girls about one of their boyfriend. The floormen spotted the argument before it got out of hand. One of the girls pull a hair pen which we later found out is one of the new weapons the Chinese are [marketing] to young blacks. We put both groups out and called the 5th Dist. to prevent any outside problems.”
On Oct. 17, 2001, Breeze wrote, “A guy + girl got into an argument at the bar about something personal and I asked them to settle it outside of the club. The man left but the lady stayed and I later found out the lady had a baby by the man and he was not paying child support. No police were called.”
Read enough of these and you get a sense of how the same scenario seems to play outarguments, fights, and the fear of gunplay. Sometimes, it’s just an eerie sound off a nearby street. Sometimes, it’s actual bullets whizzing by.
“On Sat morning at about 2:05 I called the 5th Dist. to inform them of an incident where my security put some guy out and I requested patrol cars and was told there were cars already outside,” Breeze wrote this past April 5. “While talking to the station shooting began outside while my customers were leaving a guy drove up and parked his car and ran behind the building and shot another guy in the leg. I was told all the time the 3 trucks and 2 cars were sitting across the street with officers….If they had shown themselves 1st maybe this incident wouldn’t have happened.”
Breeze gets tired battling Bladensburg Roadespecially when he can’t even get the cops out of their cruisers, or the kids to calm the fuck down. His detractors, the ones who memorize the crime blotters, don’t see it his way. To the neighborhood busybodies, police-department brass, and the ABC Board, Deno’s is a bona fide battleground.
When the ABC Board suspended his liquor license, six days after the Aug. 14 shootings, Breeze found out that city officials had compiled their own journal on his club. Over the last 20 months, beat cops have reported seven stabbing incidents, nine shooting incidents, one robbery, and one hit-and-runall of which, they say, one way or another stemmed from Deno’s.
“It’s a trouble spot,” says Metropolitan Police Department Assistant Chief Brian Jordan. Sticking half a platoon of patrol officers at the club’s door, Jordan says, wouldn’t change its “propensity for crime and violence.”
But the cops don’t see what Breeze sees. The formal police accounts of these incidents are whittled down to measly nuggets. Breeze says they omit the important shit: that the club was closed, or the victim was drunk, or the whole damn thing happened blocks away, out of sight.
Viewed as a whole, the list of violent acts obscures the fact that there are many golden nights that are pleasant and peaceful, that most Deno’s patrons leave without brandishing weapons, stealing cars, or spewing threats. “I’m highly pissed off at about 2 percent of my patrons,” Breeze says. “Two percent of them are assholes.”
The first time a bullet hit the club, in 1980, piercing two of his windows, Breeze didn’t freak out or shut downhe took action. He put up thick iron bars and bulletproof glass, at $3,800 per window. One bullet hole is still there, just to the right of the main exit sign.
But tempered windows weren’t enough to get city inspectors off of Breeze’s back. After several shooting incidents outside the club and an investigation in which the club was caught selling liquor to minors, city officials revoked Breeze’s license. While maintaining his innocence, Breeze went three years without liquor, financing the club’s operation on credit cards, Atlantic City slots, and, of all things, kiddie cabarets.
But then-D.C. Councilmember Marion Barry sympathized with Breeze’s struggle and even held a fundraiser at the club in 1994.
After Barry was elected mayor that same year, he says, he “talked to a couple [ABC Board] members, asked them to look at [Deno’s file] carefully.” Breeze soon got his liquor license back. “I thought he had a good idea to have a nice club in the neighborhood,” Barry says. “You can’t be responsible for people starting beefs outside your club. The shootings had nothing to do with him. He wasn’t involved with anything.”
In the wake of the suspension, Breeze has taken a page straight out of Barry’s playbook, devoting his time to grass-roots organizing. He has collected roughly 1,000 signatures on petitions supporting his club. He’s gotten bus service donated to ship people from Deno’s downtown for his ABC Board hearing on Sept. 24. He’s passed out fliers at the club advertising the free bus ride.
Although Barry has not signed the petition, he supports the Deno’s cause. “From what I gather, it ought to stay open,” Barry says.
But today’s technocrats don’t see Breeze the same way. A week before the ABC hearing, Breeze is sitting in his office, relaxing after hours, when the phone rings. On the other end is a neighborhood politico bearing some bad news. Rumors have been circulating that Breeze improperly claimed an endorsement from Ward 5 Councilmember Vincent Orange on the fliers. It’s a piece of gossip easily squelchedthe fliers don’t mention Orange or anybody elsebut Breeze is pissed just the same.
“You have to understand, I’m fighting this thing alone,” he shouts into the receiver at the local bigwig. “I know [Orange is] no Barry. I know he’s not gonna put his neck in a noose for meI wouldn’t do that, man.” The call ends with Breeze asking for an audience with Orange: “Tell him he could’ve called me himself on thistell him he’s got all my numbers.”
Not 15 minutes later, Orange rings up his constituentintent on safeguarding his reputation. “Vince, I would never put your name on nothing, man. I’m fighting this battle by myself,” Breeze snarls to the councilmember. “You and I are sho ’nuff OK. I’m not asking you to do anything but look at the record. I’m walking in here with my pants down and my ass out, but I would never jeopardize your position, dog.”
After a brief pause, Breeze starts reading Orange the riot act.
“Everybody’s giving money to, uh, what’s that placethe Shrimp Boat? No…Ben’s Chili Bowl!” he says. “Ben ain’t been there but 20 yearsI’ve been here 30!” he bellows, working up to preacher decibels. (Ben’s Chili Bowl opened in 1958.) “But they got everybody going up there for him.”
“I’m not no Ibex, man!” Breeze growls. “You follow what I’m sayin’?”
Breeze then begins to work Orange from all anglesbombarding him with an endless stream of questions: Why are his patrons’ car windshields being littered with tickets? Councilmember Carol Schwartz got that fixed for citizens elsewhere. Why is he responsible for activity outside of his establishment when other nightclub owners aren’t? And why can’t Orange stop a Deno’s neighbor, that ex-cop white broad, who keeps trying to stir up trouble? “She didn’t vote for you!” Breeze says.
It’s quite a bit of lobbying. “How many people do you know can get 1,000 people to speak out for them?” Breeze asks. “I got 1,000 petitioners alreadythat means something, homes.”
Breeze is running out of money. And Breeze without money is like a liquor store without neon, a pimp without swagger, a soul-food joint without hot sauce. Breeze has had to start repeating outfits, cut back on his hat allowance, and curtail dinners at Captain White’s Crab House. He’s downsized his indulgences, he says, to Dove soap.
His diminished mojo has had far-reaching effects along Bladensburg Road. Everyone in his inner circle feels his pain. One Monday morning, Big Mac stumbles into the club unexpectedly. He holds up a $55 parking ticket for Breeze to see. He needs the $55 bad, he tells his boss. He knows times are tight, but could Breeze spare it? “I ain’t got no money,” Big Mac begs.
Any other time, Breeze would jump on the chance to play king. Instead, he slumps into the question, thinking it over for far too long. It makes everybody in the room a little uncomfortable. The $55 shouldn’t break Breeze. But his slowness in reaching for his roll of bills makes Big Mac look away, embarrassed.
Breeze slowly unfolds some bills and hands them over. “Here, man,” he mutters. Everyone seems worse for the transaction. Big Mac wastes no time leaving.
An hour later, a guy wanders over from the Syd’s liquor-store parking lot. He asks Breeze for $5. It’s nearly noon, and the guy looks as if he really needs the money. His voice lacks the bravado of a professional panhandlerhe’s just another dude who happens to know Breeze. “Nah, man,” Breeze says. “I don’t have it.” And the guy walks away without asking why the owner of Bladensburg’s main night-time industry doesn’t have a five to spare.
Breeze has a more generous standard for Deno’s extended family. One day, he learns that a recently laid-off employee can’t afford to buy her son new clothes for school and that the son has nearly gotten busted for shoplifting. The boy needs sneakers. Breeze rings up his former underling: “Go ahead and charge the shoes and I’ll pay for ’em,” he says. He will later add new shirts and pants to the list.
Since the liquor-license suspension, Breeze has had to let eight people go. He has resorted to personal credit cardsracking up $4,500 to $5,000 in debt in three weeks. There are things he can’t let slide: the gratis buffet he feeds to the denizens of Breeze Country before the show airs, his stepdaughter’s college tuition, kibble for his dog, Kirby Outlaw, a Japanese akita.
“You know he don’t want to hear nothing ’bout ‘Don’t nobody got no money,’” Breeze says of his furry “main man.”
The club owner’s strained finances have started to affect Breeze Country’s content. These days, the host spends a third of the program’s 90 minutes filibustering on Deno’s predicament, short-shrifting an audience of die-hard senior fans.
Breeze knows he’s running out of time. There are only so many nights he can go without liquor, without a big crowd. His bouncers have started moonlighting. Raw Image Band skipped one coveted Friday-night spot for a more lucrative gig in the ‘burbs. The employees and bands that have remained have taken serious pay cuts.
“No matter how loyal, no one is going to work for you for freenot on no long-term thing,” Breeze says. “With the drama of this business, they’re not gonna work for free….My loyalty to them has no end, but my finances do.”
Breeze is used to stretching a little bit of money. Growing up in Norfolk, Va., he lost his father at age 12 and then his mother at 14. He remembers that she worked three jobs to support him and his brother, that she died on the job. He was then adopted by his mother’s best friends. During his teenage years, he learned the following things: to fight, dance, play craps, and be fair with people.
But mostly he learned to take shit jobs. He sold ice. He collected boxes. He picked tomatoes. He packed pickles into pickle jars. He also learned he didn’t like shit jobs.
Breeze escaped into the Army as an infantryman in the early ’60s, eventually leaving the service and moving to the District. He fell in love with Motown and got into radio gigs, street DJing, and MCing shows. He spent his prime introducing big names such as Richard Pryor, the Temptations, and Isaac Hayes. He warmed up their crowd and spun their records.
Breeze got the best of go-go from the genre’s inception. When he discovered Chuck Brown in 1966, the performer was stuck on the barbecue-and-beer circuit. Breeze offered the future Godfather of Go-Go $22 and a headlining gig at the Pitts Motel’s Red Velvet Lounge. “He said, ‘You need to need to play uptown, get more exposure, and then you’ll start getting cabarets and things like that.’ And that’s exactly how it happened,” Brown recalls. “We started getting on cabarets, and then our first TV show, and from there, the rest is history.”
From that point on, Breeze began using his club to give other young bands their first break. The genre is notorious for being a tightknit fraternity, where hazing is a big part of initiation, but Breeze turned Deno’s into year-round Pledge Week. Every band has had to go through his doors. E.U. (Experience Unlimited), Rare Essence, Little Benny and the Masters, Junk Yard Band, Backyard Band, Northeast Groovers, and 911 have all spent residencies honing their skills at Breeze’s shop.
“That’s one part of the dreamto make it to Deno’s,” says Kevin “Kato” Hammond, editor of the online magazine Take Me Out to the Go-Go.
If Breeze inadvertently became the Don Cornelius of the District’s down-home sound, Deno’s hardly resembled Soul Train. The club never had the lore of the Coliseum or the ambition of the great halls such as the Icebox and the Taj. But Deno’s had stabilityset nights that didn’t fall apart because of a fire marshal’s edict or a promoter’s hissy fit.
Breeze took it upon himself to lecture cocky talkers who strutted off his stage. He saw early on that the only way go-go could be marketed was if its leaders saw themselves as peacekeepers, not flamethrowers. He cites Backyard as the product of his most successful mentorship. “I’ve seen them develop,” he says. “I haven’t seen any band become more commercial than them. Backyard Band went from gangsters to entertainers.”
That’s a lot of history to let the ABC Board take away with a flick of its administrative wrist. Breeze argues that the board isn’t so much out to get a 60-year-old club owner as it is to exile go-go from D.C. nightlife. Says a former city appointee, “I think that go-go music has become just a disaster because some of the club owners don’t know how to manage the kinds of crowds they attract. Let it go to Prince George’s County.”
In his response to the ABC Board’s proceeding, Breeze is kowtowing to officialdom’s prejudices. In his “2003 Corrective Action Plan,” which will be issued to the board, Breeze proposes not only raising the club’s minimum age to 30, but also: “Under this proposal Deno’s will no longer offer Go-Go as a musical format for its patrons.”
It sounds like an enormous concessionuntil, that is, you get to the fine print, which amends the bye-bye to go-go: “ELIMINATION OF ‘GO-GO’ ENTERTAINMENT FOR EIGHT (8) MONTHS.”
The bus arrives at Deno’s around 11:50. It’s an old, white-gone-gray charter with dusty windows and narrow aisles. Although there’s no destination listed on its marquee, this bus is headed to the city office complex at 941 North Capitol St. NE, home of the ABC Board. Today the board will listen to testimony on whether Breeze will have to limp along on soft-drink sales.
Inside the club, Breeze begins rallying the troops. “The bus is herelet’s go!” he shouts to a group of Deno’s supporters near the buffet, free for all comers. “Y’all get some snacksthey’re not gonna give you none down there. They’re not gonna give you nothing.”
“But a hard time!” one guy cracks as he walks out the door. In all, there are about 20 people boarding the bus, most of them seniors who hand-dance on Breeze Country. Through loyalty to the show, or Breeze, or both, they have fully committed to saving a club that primarily caters to people a third their age. Other Deno’s partisans include bus drivers who hang out behind the club and old friends of Breeze’s.
While everyone else exits the building, Breeze grabs a black leather briefcase and a clipboard with his petition sheets, then locks the club down. He rolls up his Cadillac’s windows, walks around the club looking for any stragglers, and heads toward the bus. “So begins the big hoopla,” he says.
As he climbs the rickety steps of the bus, he is met with applause: “Breeze!” the seniors shout in unison as he gets on board. He bows, takes a seataloneand starts compiling the petition sheets. “Anybody got a staple gun?” he asks. No one steps forward. “Nobody got a staple gun? I can’t believe this! All these people on a freedom ride and nobody got a staple gun?”
A celebrity rider, Ms. Senior D.C. 1993, tells him that she can provide a stapler, if they swing past her house. “We don’t have time!” Breeze tells her.
Just before the bus pulls out, Breeze rises to thank everyone for attending. “Win, lose, or draw, thanks for your support,” he tells the riders. “Somebody’s gotta stand up down the lineit’s me today, but it’ll be someone else tomorrow. I thank y’all. It’s in God’s hands now.”
“Amen,” the riders reply.
As the bus lumbers down Bladensburg Road, Breeze complains that it’s too hot. “Maybe it’s this cheap suit I got on!” he jokes. Not that he needs to draw any more attention to his duds: Today he’s decked out in black snakeskin boots, a black-and-white windowpane-plaid suit with a white shirt, a cream wide-brim hat, and a white-and-black striped tie with a pocket square to match.
Right before the bus turns onto North Capitol, someone suggests that a song should be sung. “You wanna lead us in ‘We Shall Overcome,’ Breeze?” one woman asks. “No, and you don’t either,” he replies. “We can do it to a go-go beat!” she counters. “Naw,” he says, “we aiight.”
The bus stops and the seniors, with much assistance, make their way off. City employees outside on smoke breaks titter and giggle about all of the old folks dressed up for the judge, until someone spots the man behind it all. “Oh, they’re down here for Breeze,” she says.
Breeze and his supporters take the elevator up to the seventh-floor hearing room, which is already crowded with bus drivers, security staffers, and hand-dancing regulars who drove themselvesas well as a handful of folks determined to make sure Breeze never pours another drink.
By 1:15, the hearing room is standing-room-only. Breeze works the crowd like a true politician. “C’mon, homesit’s time for us to go to work,” he says before taking his seat.
The city attorney opens with a rehashing of the 21 incidents listed on the formal ABC charging documents. Breeze’s attorney, Andrea Bagwell, attempts to take the sticker shock out of the incident tally: “Exaggeration plus fabrication equals exoneration,” she says. Of the 21 incidents of violence Breeze is being held responsible for, Bagwell maintains, 17 took place after the club closed for the night, only three resulted in arrests, and none have garnered convictions.
Deno’s opponents clearly recognize the folly of attacking a neighborhood folk hero. In making their case against the club, they argue that the problems flow not from the owner himself, but from various externalities: the drain the club causes on police resources, the fact that patrons are slow to leave the area once the club closes, and so on. “I don’t have a problem with Mr. Clayton,” says 5th District police Cmdr. Jennifer Greene. “His relationship with the 5th District has been very good.”
Greene and her fellow officers, however, testify that Deno’s should be closed.
By the time Deno’s supporters finally get an opportunity to speak, their numbers have dwindled. Of the 15 originally slated to testify, about half have stuck it out long enough to stand up for their guy.
After Breeze’s supporters speak out in favor of Deno’s, the owner himself takes the stand. His priority is to rebut a charge from ABC Board Interim Chair Charles Burger, who notes, “We’ve had more allegations with this establishment than any other.”
In his defense, Breeze claims that most of the “allegations” either didn’t happen at all or didn’t involve his patrons. And in the few cases where violence originated at his club, he insists that his security force was on top of things. “I’m not trying to cover up,” he says. “If I done something, blame me for it.”
The hearing drags on long enoughabout 11 hoursto wear down ABC Board members as well as witnesses. Ms. Senior D.C. 1993 nods off amid all the chatter. At the end, the board announces that it will reach a decision on Oct. 1, a day that Breeze is dreading. “I don’t think I’m going to win,” he says.
Breeze isn’t sure when his last go-go night will be. The curtain call may be next week, next month, or two years from now.
And it may have already taken place. On Sept. 13, a cool Saturday night, Deno’s doors opened for what was to be the club’s final go-go show before the hearing. It went down like so many other nights at the dry Deno’s.
Nobody lined up to pluck the last pig’s foot ($1 per) from the jar perched between the pickles and spicy sausages on the bar.
Nobody bothered to check out the four gold records hung behind the big screen on a mirrored wall. Breeze promoted the records in D.C. and used them to help make his name.
Nobody respected the fact that Breeze was charging 25 cents for a cup of ice. “You have to pay,” Breeze told one woman. She plunked down her quarter and stomped off with her cup. “You gotta sell something,” Breeze explained. “You get ice free with the soda.”
Nobody admired the hand-painted mural of Breeze, his head between a Metrobus and Metrorail car, behind glass. His deceased brother’s portrait is to his right, his former business partner to his left. A few kids in baggy jeans just leaned against the thing as if it were any other wall.
And nobody stopped to behold Breeze’s credo, which hangs on a poster board: “I Don’t Get High So Please Don’t Offer Me No Drugs, If I Need Drugs, I’ll Get Them From CVS or from My Doctor.”
Before headliner TCB Band took the stage, a guy leaned against a dark sedan parked beneath a sign reading “No Lotering,”prepping a blunt. He split a cigar, dumping its guts onto the pavement. After finishing the task, he jumped into the sedan with three friends. They sat and filled the car with smoke.
Around 1 a.m., Breeze badgered his nephew for a double cheeseburger. His daughter brought him a barbecue-chicken sandwich, but the club owner wasn’t biting. “What kind of barbecue is made out of chicken?” Breeze bitched. “Chicken barbecue: What do I look like?” Finally, the nephew zipped down Bladensburg Road to McDonald’s.
Breeze would get his cheeseburger but not a full house. And the night ended as it always does. The band played one last hit. The crowd looked as if it hadn’t gotten its money’s worth. But the house lights went up anyway. And Breeze got the last word:
“Hey, gang, this is Breeze,” the owner boomed in a pre-recorded message. “Don’t forget, when we close, do not sit in the parking lots or in the neighboring, uh, neighborhoods. Please leave the area as quickly and quietly as you can. Let’s be courteous to our neighbors because if you don’t, there are very few go-go places left and this, like all the others, might be closed real soon. So please leave the area as quickly and as quietly as you can. This is Breeze. Thank you.” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Charles Steck.